Ah, Costa Rica! The land of amazing rainforests, beautiful beaches, cool wildlife, and a bad reputation of being too expensive for backpackers.
Because of its expensive and touristy reputation a lot of people tend to skip backpacking in Costa Rica and head straight to it’s more affordable neighbors, Panama and Nicaragua.
Seriously, it’s insane the number of awesome people we have met while in Panama or Nicaragua that are backpacking through Central America and plan on taking the bus straight through Costa Rica because it’s too expensive for them.
This always breaks my Costa Rica loving heart, but I completely understand. The country is 100% is more expensive than its neighbors. However, it is still possible to travel without completely breaking the bank.
And, I’m of course biased, but Costa Rica is way more fun than its neighbors. So, I definitely think you should visit!
We created this guide to backpacking Costa Rica to give you the best info on how to travel the country as a backpacker.
Let’s start with the border crossings….
Border Crossings While Backpacking Costa Rica
Anyone else get serious anxiety when it comes to border crossings? I always have mini panic attacks and it (almost) always turns out just fine!
If you are starting your travels in Costa Rica you can fly into either the Liberia or San Jose airport.
The Liberia airport is only about an hour from the Nicaragua border. This could be a great option if you want a quick visit to some nice Costa Rican beaches and then plan on heading north.
The San Jose airport is much more centrally located.
We have a complete guide to both airports if you need some help deciding.
Keep in mind, when you enter Costa Rica you will need to show the border control officer proof that you plan to leave Costa Rica within 90 days. There are two ways of going about this.
- Show flight proof back to your home country (can be from another Central American airport) within 90 days of your entry.
- Show proof of an onward bus ticket. This is the cheapest way. I suggest Tica Bus because their tickets aren’t crazy expensive, you can book online, and you need to enter your passport so it shows that you are actually the person on the ticket.
We have a complete guide of Costa Rica entry requirements which gets more in detail into all of this.
Costa Rica/ Panama Border
Heading from Panama into Costa Rica is pretty easy, but it can occasionally get very backed up.
There is no fee for entering the Costa Rica (you pay about $8 per person when leaving) but you will have to show proof that you are leaving Costa Rica within 90 days.
As with entering Costa Rica by air, you can show proof with either a bus or plane ticket.
The best way to cross to and from Panama is by bus. There is a public bus that runs back and forth from San Jose to the border (Sixaola is the town name) several times a day. It costs about $12 for a one-way ticket.
Costa Rica/ Nicaragua Border
If you are crossing from Nicaragua into Costa Rica you will need to go through the same process as it would be to enter from Panama. Make sure you have proof that you are leaving within 90 days.
We have a guide to the Costa Rica/ Nicaragua border crossing which will help you more with this process
Popular Towns for Backpackers
While backpacking through Costa Rica you will likely head to the places which are most easily accessible by public buses.
A small mountainous town in the cloud forest. It is always colder here than the rest of the country and you can almost guarantee that it will be raining. This is a great place for zip lining, repelling, hiking, and seeing wildlife.
Home to the beautiful Arenal Volcano, this jungle destination is made for adventure. Here you can take a canopy tour, go rafting, hike the hanging bridges, swim under a waterfall, relax in a hot spring, and more!
A popular beach town located only 1.5 hours from San Jose. This town is known for its nightlife scene and white sand beaches.
A relaxed surfing town that is only accessible by dirt roads. We love this town so much and highly recommend it.
The last big town on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica before the Panama border. This town is popular with surfers and people looking to enjoy some nightlife.
Although these are the places that have the most backpacker-ish vibe, that doesn’t mean you need to limit yourself to these places.
Transportation In Costa Rica
Typically we suggest that people rent a car while traveling in Costa Rica because it is definitely the easiest way to get around. However, car rentals aren’t exactly budget friendly.
The most affordable way to get around inside of the country is by public bus. The bus schedule is ridiculously confusing and comprehensive.
Luckily, there is this great website called Centro Casting which is a lifesaver as far as determining Costa Rica bus routes.
Also, if you have bus-related questions, I suggest joining the Costa Rica by Bus Facebook group.
Keep in mind that some places are just complicated to get to. Everything seems to originate in San Jose but traveling between other locations can sometimes be a complex journey with multiple stops.
Also, we have seen people hitchhiking in Costa Rica, but I wouldn’t suggest it.
We often drive tourists if we see them looking to get back into the town they are staying in after visiting a nearby national park or something. However, with longer treks, I would be hesitant.
Suggested Costa Rica Itineraries for Backpackers
I created a few itinerary suggestions for you. Three are for those of you that only plan on visiting Costa Rica. The other itinerary is for those of you passing through Costa Rica while traveling between Panama and Nicaragua.
These itineraries were created with ease of traveling by public bus in mind.
Itinerary for Just Costa Rica
You could also easily add a stop in Dominical or Playa Hermosa to this route. With this route you can visit Manuel Antonio National Park in Manuel Antonio and the Corcovado National Park while in Puerto Jimenez.
This route will require you to cross the border into Panama if you want to go to Bocas del Toro. But, it is an amazing place to visit. I definitely recommend it!
La Fortuna and Monteverde are not far apart when you look at a map, but the bus route is rough. Plus, this is the one road I always get really car sick on. You probably don’t want to do this trip in the public bus.
I suggest taking a shared private shuttle for about $25.
Itinerary for Costa Rica While Backpacking Central America
I wrote this with the mindset that you would be starting on te Caribbean coast of Panama and heading to Pacific coast of Nicaragua, but just reverse course if going the other way.
With this route you can easily cut out Uvita, Manuel Antonio, or Jaco. The one downside of this route is that it does not involve visiting and mountainous jungle destinations such as La Fortuna or Monteverde.
However, this route is easily done by bus without tons of crazy stops and waiting.
Don’t forget to check out Centro Casting to figure out your exact bus schedule.
How to Find Affordable Accommodations
Your best bet for finding cheap accommodations are hostels or Airbnb.
Most hostels in Costa Rica are decent. Some include breakfast and most have a shared kitchen on site that guests can use.
We also sometimes find really good deals through Airbnb. We like Airbnb for unique accommodations that often have a private kitchen.
If you are interested in socializing with other backpackers and finding tons of fun activities to do, I suggest hostels.
If you would like a more private experience, Airbnb is probably a better choice.
Just keep in mind that most hostels are located in the center of town which makes them easy to access after arriving by bus. Sometimes Airbnb’s tend to be a bit out of the downtown area.
Affordable Activities in Costa Rica
We created a post of 20 fun free activities in Costa Rica which will help you find all the great free things to do.
One of the best things to do for free in Costa Rica is to enjoy the beaches. All beaches in Costa Rica must have public access by law. This means that all beaches are free and accessible for you to visit.
The number one piece of advice I have for you as a backpacker is that it is so humid here (and in the rest of Central America) that everything in your backpack will be wet all the time.
Bring things that are fast drying to help some of that. Also, make sure to keep your plastic bags when at the grocery store. They are very helpful for storing wet clothes when you need to take them to your next destination.
There are laundromats throughout the country in all major towns if you need to clean your clothes. Also, some hostels provide a washer for guests to use.
Our Backpacking Costa Rica Tips
-Stay at a place with a kitchen so you can cook your own meals.
-Eat at the small local restaurants called sodas. Here you can get the dish of the day (called a casado). This usually consists of a meat, rice, beans, salad, and sometimes plantains. It’s delicious!
Usually you can eat a casado for about $5.
-Buy alcohol in Panama or Nicaragua and bring it in with you. You are allowed to carry in up to 5 liters.
-Visit the local farmer’s markets (ask at your hostel when one is) for cheap produce.
-Skip the day tours if they seem pricey and visit places on your own.
-Skip the guides at national parks
-Travel during the rainy season (May to November). Everything is cheaper during this time of the year and typically the rain isn’t bad. You will likely have an afternoon rain storm for an hour or two and then everything will clear up.
-Don’t book tours ahead of time. Most hostels partner with local companies and can get you a better rate.
-Ask at your hostel or Airbnb what the employees favorite local activities are. They can give you a more local experience which is almost always cheaper.
Need any more tips for backpacking through Costa Rica or want to share your own experience? We’d love to hear from you in the comment section below! We are happy to help you out!
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